Physics is said to rule the world, and whatever flavor you fancy––classical, relative, or quantum––the modern method of capturing photons in an oriented manner, aka photography, hasn’t changed much over the years. There is a relatively short list of technologies that haven’t changed since their “mainstream” adoption, and photography has remained on that list for some time. Digital photography was an update to the capture method associated with the capture of light, but for the most part, film was replaced with a sensor and the light converted into data. The mechanics of the single-lens reflex (SLR) camera have remained fundamentally the same: lens, aperture, shutter, film, and focusing mechanism. The system was based on the sun sending photons toward earth, objects on earth reflecting or absorbing those photons (depending on the composition of the objects), and an observer capturing those photons in an oriented manner with film or a digital sensor. The photons bounce off all the contours of an object, and a subset of the photons that bounce back to the observer arrive at the eye of a human (or the aperture of a camera) at different angles (vector directions). This is why different types of lenses are used to enable various quantities and angles of photons to reach an image sensor or film. The vast majority of the modern lenses on SLRs require some function of focus, or the selection of the point in the image at which all photons meet uniformly, thus making one area of the image in focus and other areas blurry or less sharp. The concept of focus has been fundamental to photography, but there has been little innovation on this front.
Meet Ren Ng and his company, Lytro. The Lytro camera captures all light in the light field (think all possible reflections of photons from a given object and the angle of each photon) and enables the user to select focus after the image is captured. As explained on Lytro’s website, the camera’s “light field sensor captures the color, intensity and vector direction of rays of lights.” Capturing the direction of the light is the big innovation in the imaging technology used by Lytro.
The after-the-fact focus aspect of Lytro images has seen its share of scrutiny among both techies and photogs, but this development means a change in the mindsets of both worlds. The company approached a traditional system of photography, took the concept of the light field (the amount of light traveling in every direction at any given point), and developed an image-capture method that could exploit the main benefit: control over focus after image capture.
Lytro demonstrates the power of the image sensor and algorithms associated with the processing of those images and their application in traditional photography and 3D imaging. The design of the Lytro camera is inspiring, with only two buttons and a touch screen––the square aspect ratio adds a level of intrigue.
Consider Lytro’s camera to be a major innovation in photography. As a competitive product, it could change the trajectory of the photographic industry, which is closely linked to modern technology. Also, add “living image”––an image captured with directional vector data––to your vocabulary.
Author: John Carew